Interview: Katie Geha

by Rachel Adams

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      Barry Stone, Hum (installation shot), SOFA Gallery, Austin

      Austin has a rich history of DIY spaces. For this issue of …mbg, we asked Rachel Adams, the Curator of Public Programs at Arthouse, to conduct an email interview with Katie Geha, who runs SOFA Gallery from her Hyde Park apartment. In their conversation below, Adams and Geha discuss the challenges and pleasures of running an apartment gallery, the role of alternative spaces and the Austin art world at large. 

      Rachel Adams [RA]: What were your thoughts on starting SOFA? Were you already living in this apartment?

      Katie Geha [KG]: I moved to Austin to start the PhD program in art history at UT in 2008. Before that, I had been working for the past three years as the Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Ulrich Museum. After about a year here, I just started to feel like…well, as much as I love books and talking about ideas with other art historians, I missed the collaborative effort of organizing shows and doing studio visits and talking with artists about the art that they’re making.

      In 2009 I moved into my own apartment in Austin. When I was looking for places, I definitely had an apartment gallery in mind. For instance, I was pleased that this particular apartment was not on the end of the building, so there were fewer windows and more wall space. I also knew I didn’t have the resources to create any kind of fancy white-cube gallery, so the apartment itself, my living space, needed to be part of the concept. 

      RA: Is this the only alternative space that you’ve run or worked with? What is your history with these types of spaces?

      KG: This is the first apartment gallery I’ve ever run. I got my Master’s degree in Chicago, and that city has a really rich history with these kinds of alternative spaces. It was a regular occurrence to go to an opening at someone’s apartment on any given weekend, and my friend Stacie and I talked about starting a space, so it was a concept that was always in the back of my mind.

      RA: As someone who now works at a non-profit and once ran an apartment space, I’d like to know where your funding comes from? Is SOFA a commercial gallery?

      KG: SOFA is first and foremost a side project. I try to keep this in mind so that I don’t get taken over by it. I have lots of ideas and there are many times where I think, “Yeah, let’s do it. Let’s go big!” Then I have to remind myself that those ideas cost money and time, and that I have a dissertation to write or a class to teach or books I’d like to buy. All of the funding comes from my pocketbook. I have a long-standing babysitting job on Friday afternoons, and that money goes to the project. 

      SOFA isn’t exactly a commercial gallery. Works are always for sale, and I love the idea of pricing works at a range in which graduate students or young professionals might be able to purchase something. Owning art is this really special, exciting feeling—like buying a great pair of shoes times 100. At the risk of sounding hokey, my hope is to invoke in people that feeling. Making money, of course, would be wonderful but it was never the goal. 

      RA: What are the support systems for SOFA? I am interested because in my experience, I have found that spaces like these are usually a labor of love.

      KG: I have good friends who come to all the openings and occasionally buy a piece or write a review of a show. My friend Travis Kent is very much an advisor in terms of installation. He also helps paint the walls and hang the clip lamps. My friend Stacie Johnson runs an alternative space in Bushwick and we talk on the phone regularly about programming and logistics or send one another suggestions for shows. It’s basically a one-woman show with lots of help from friends and the art community. 

      RA: I haven’t been in Austin for very long, but it seems that there are a few galleries in people’s homes: Co-lab, testsite and SOFA. Do you know of any more to come? Do you think Austin needs more spaces in general? What are your thoughts about the city and its art community?

      KG: I don’t know of any new ones on the horizon, but whenever someone talks about how they like SOFA, I always encourage him or her to start a space. It’s so easy! When I first started I would spend $50 tops on each exhibition, and maybe 12 people would come and sit around my living room. It was so small in the beginning, like a speakeasy. 

      As far as the art community in Austin, I sometimes feel disappointed that there isn’t a stronger market. Mostly this makes me sad, because when a community doesn’t buy art (i.e. support it) it feels like the community doesn’t value art. I don’t know if this is necessarily true, or if the connection between admiring and supporting through money has just not been made. But I feel lucky that there are these amazing people, like Sean Gaulager at Co-Lab, Russell Etchen at Domy Books, Sonia Dutton at Champion and Laurence Miller at testsite who are willing to keep spaces going despite this lack of market. During the Italian Renaissance it was a citizen’s civic duty to be a patron and to support the arts. Those were the days! 

      RA: Austin has a small but enthusiastic community with such a range of people—collectors, artists, curators, students of all ranges and disciplines, and amazing professors. And yet, if there isn’t the support, both financially and in terms of an audience, how do we expect to thrive? That is sort of rhetorical, but do you have any thoughts?

      KG: That's a really good/hard question. I think the way artists and people who run small spaces thrive in Austin is not really through monetary gains, not really through the support of collectors. (Of course this is not true for everyone, but the BIG collectors in Austin? I don't think they know my name.) I feel like we thrive because we have interesting ideas, make good work and genuinely like and respect one another. It's through conversation and collaboration where the support comes from. Not having funding means having to be creative, hence, the alternative space. 

      RA: You work with a variety of people, both from Austin and from other cities like Chicago, LA and New York. This was obviously a conscious choice. Can you talk a little bit more about your choices, and perhaps other programs or spaces that inspired you?

      KG: I wanted to exhibit Austin artists, but I didn’t want the programming to get too hermetic. I thought it was important to introduce Austin’s art community to artists from other regions. Also, since this is my apartment, I often just think about whom I would want hanging around my space. When I work with an artist, we’re in my apartment a lot—there’s always a meal involved and a lot of time just sitting in my space talking about the exhibition. A big part of the project, really, is inviting people into my home. 

      RA: Let’s talk about this word “alternative”—as in alternative gallery and alternative space. What does that mean to you? Is there another word that you would rather use? 

      KG: I’ve often heard people refer to SOFA as a salon, like the French salons of the 17th and 18th centuries. Back then a salon was a gathering of like-minded people that often generated amusement and education through conversation. I think this is an apt way of thinking about my project. 

      Part of the fun for me is playing hostess. I can’t make art at all, but I am very good at bringing people together, making a meal, and asking questions. I guess if you wanted to be academic about it, one could align the project to relational aesthetics. Another interesting part of the project is what it’s like for me personally to live with certain works of art. I often feel like I’m hanging out in the artist’s psyche for the duration of the show. This is usually a good thing. 

      RA: Do you consider the artists you show at SOFA differently than if this were a more commercially-driven space or a museum? What interests you about the context of placing these artists in a domestic space? 

      KG: I think I would show any of the artists that have exhibited here in a more commercial space or museum (in fact, I’ve shown several previously at the Ulrich). In many ways, it’s just another space to show art. However, I’m very explicit about how the space is my apartment and not a clean white space. The artists and I generally work to create an exhibition that responds specifically to my apartment, or at least to the idea that it’s a domestic space. 

      RA: Do you have a collection yourself or are you happy to always have a rotation of work?

      KG: I definitely have a small collection. My bedroom is filled with art! 

      RA: Upcoming shows?

      KG: Kara Braciale, an artist from Boston whom I knew in Chicago, will be showing some really beautiful woven paintings in April. I can’t wait to see those on my walls. 

      Rachel Adams is currently the Curator of Public Programs at Arthouse.
 She received her MA in Exhibition and Museum Studies from the San
 Francisco Art Institute in 2010. She is the co-founder of Lloyd Dobler 
Gallery, an apartment gallery in Chicago, which she directed from

      fern kupfer
      Mar 31, 2011 | 4:45pm

      Sassy and smart interview—I can’t wait to see SOFA!

      OTIS IKE
      Apr 10, 2011 | 10:13pm

      Katie is quite wonderful for artists.  She not only makes her home a public space for their work, she writes very thoughtful essays on her artists and works hard to make sure the art finds a home in the Austin community.  I hope that she never leaves.  She has an amazing blog too.

      OTIS IKE
      Apr 10, 2011 | 10:14pm

      Katie is quite wonderful for artists.  She not only makes her home a public space for their work, she writes very thoughtful essays on her artists and works hard to make sure the art finds a home in the Austin community.  I hope that she never leaves.  She has a wonderful blog too.

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